INTERVIEW: Navy Vet Changing How Companies Handle Cybersecurity

INTERVIEW: Navy Vet Changing How Companies Handle Cybersecurity

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, In Military and InCyberDefense

Note: This article is Part 1 of a three-part series on Navy Veteran and cyber-CEO Angela Hill.

While governments and corporations struggle to stay ahead of the ever-evolving threats to cybersecurity, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) recently invited me to learn about some new state initiatives to address the needs of this fast-growing industry. During this trip, MEDC representatives arranged a lunch between tech journalists and cybersecurity stakeholders, which included CEOs and founders of Michigan-based companies looking to make a difference.

I was seated next to an amazing young woman, Navy veteran Angela Hill. Angela, along with her brother Ed, founded Jadex, a cybersecurity firm in Spring Lake, Michigan.

I am passionate about both veteran entrepreneurship and cybersecurity, so I arranged to interview Angela. We discussed how Angela got to where she is, what advice she might have for transitioning servicemembers and what insights she could offer on a number of IT topics.

Wes O’Donnell: Angela, thanks so much for meeting me. In my area of writing and reporting, I consider you the trinity of awesome: veteran, entrepreneur and cybersecurity professional. Can you tell me about your military background?

Angela: My pleasure, Wes. I come from a Navy family. Both of my grandfathers were in the service; one was a Marine and the other was in the Navy. My father was active-duty Navy and then served in the Reserves.

He was a lifer. They actually kicked him out because of his high year of tenure.

[Note: High Year of Tenure is a term used by the United States Armed Forces to describe the maximum number of years enlisted members may serve before they must separate or retire. HYT is applicable to enlisted personnel of all five military branches. For instance, a Private (E-1) in the U.S. Army with five years of service has reached High Year of Tenure and will be kicked out. Whereas a Sergeant First Class (E-7) in the U.S. Army must be promoted or risk getting kicked out after 26 years.]

My father ended up joining the Air Force. My brother — and now my business partner — joined the Navy right out of high school.

Wes: It sounds like you were surrounded by military men growing up. Did you even consider any branches other than the Navy?

Angela: I always wanted to be a part of the Navy because of my dad. I didn’t really know much about it, except watching him go on his annual training every year and the cool experiences he had.

I went to Saginaw Valley State, finished a four-year degree and decided to join after college in 2003. I actually went into the Navy Reserves.

Wes: Why the Reserves and not active duty?

Angela: I wasn’t quite ready for the commitment of active duty. I was starting to learn about the intelligence field, so that is what I ended up going into at first. I specialized in intelligence, image analysis and geospatial analysis. I also earned a certificate in Geographical Information Systems from Penn State.

Wes: I could make a joke here about “military intelligence,” but I digress…

Angela: (Laughs) Be careful! Spies have friends in low places.

I started out at Selfridge National Guard Base in Detroit and supported European command as an imagery analyst. This was an amazing time period, because I worked with the Marines, Air Force and Army collaboratively.

Wes: Did you ever serve on a ship?

Angela: I was never on a ship…I was always a part of joint commands. It was right after 9/11, so it was a very exciting time to be a part of the intel community.

We saw changes in the way that we process and manage data. That industry has been the leader in data collection and intelligence gathering. I was a part of this environment where these agencies shifted from being very closed and siloed to sharing information and building complete transparency, so we were able to communicate with the right counterparts.

Wes: I imagine this improved information management, in the interest of national security, helped you later in life when it was time to open an IT consulting firm. But we’ll get to that.

I have to pause and ask, as I do all intelligence folks that I meet, what is your opinion on Edward Snowden? Hero or traitor?

Angela: I understand the value of whistleblowers in our society, but I think that there are a lot that people don’t understand about intelligence and about the operations that are going on covertly around the world. Specifically, I mean the relationships that we build.

Snowden put American lives at risk. I think that’s the part that the public doesn’t understand. There is always a reason why we are doing something whether you understand it or not; you might not have the need to know, but there is always a reason why something is happening. I know in my career that I was never a part of anything I would classify as unethical or that there wasn’t a legitimate reason that we were going after a target.

Wes: I know a lot of servicemembers are going to be reading this and I don’t think a lot of them are well-prepared for the transition from military to civilian. How was that transition for you?

Angela Hill
Angela Hill

Angela: It’s not their fault, but I think that it is impossible for the military to communicate the lack of structure that you’ll experience once you separate. For me, I had a civilian and a military career concurrently, but I was part of a civilian world that was very government-focused.

When I was a civilian supporting government contracts, I didn’t have that issue. But when I left that world of the military and government contract support to enter the civilian world of commercial business, it was very hard.

Initially, I didn’t know how to translate terms. I had an interview where somebody asked me if I had ever worked on a cross-functional team. I was like, “Seriously? Of course, I worked on a cross-functional team.”

Civilian employers don’t understand anything about joint commands. Also, they don’t understand that an E-5 could run a division, take care of sailors and soldiers, and oversee environments where there are internal or external threats.

Wes: I once knew a 19-year-old who was in charge of $6 million worth of government equipment.

Angela: Exactly. That lack of awareness was a challenge and there are not a lot of resources for veterans, but it’s getting better.

For me, just learning the terminology between corporate America and the military was difficult. How do I translate what I did?

I became very passionate about helping individual veterans at the company I was working for. I helped them with their resumes after a few years of “getting it” and listening to the jargon that corporations use.

Wes: Funny you say that. I actually wrote an article on corporate jargon for military veterans. It wasn’t a serious piece…more like these are the words to avoid: Deliverables, move the needle, bandwidth.

Angela: I know, it’s silly. A company I worked for had a recruiter, but it had no recruiter who was familiar with military language. They were unable to translate resumes received from veterans and I would help some recruiters translate the resumes.

I challenge companies to look at veterans, because these companies have the same issues that the government has with retention and training. Why aren’t they looking at large institutions like the military as a model for their practices on knowledge retention and training methods?

Every branch of service, as well as the federal civilian government, has some of the best knowledge retention and information process management. You can have someone leave after two years and replace them right away because of standard operational procedures.

Why aren’t businesses leveraging their veteran workforce to build their environment? Clearly, it’s working for the government.

I think some of these commercial businesses can’t even wrap their heads around global organizations like that. The military is a huge global force. They are operating very effectively and efficiently.

The level of collaboration and communication that happens between each branch is very effective. Something’s working.

Wes: I worked for a company like that. Ran very well. Siemens is present in 190 countries and has a workforce of 372,000 employees.

Working there as my first job after the Air Force made for a pretty soft landing because, as a large German company, their processes were top-notch. I stayed for five years before getting restless, but I recommend Siemens to any and every veteran. They are a great company.

So let’s talk about your company, Jadex. When did you start it?

Angela: I started Jadex in 2012. But honestly, I did not do anything with it. My brother Ed and I were both federal contractors when we started it; half of the intelligence community is [made up of] contractors.

Our idea was that we were going to sell back contractors to the government. The Fed invests a lot in women-owned and veteran-owned small businesses. That was our idea.

The agency that I was working for in 2012 was undercover and working special operations. I got more into that world and stepped away from the business, which kept it stagnant for a while.

I decided in 2015 to come back to Michigan, because my mother was sick and going blind from diabetes. I missed Michigan and wanted to be near my family; it was time to leave some of the covert life behind.

I started revisiting my company in 2015. I ended up working for a company and becoming extremely passionate around technology and the lack of efficiency around technology investments.

In the civilian world of corporations, I saw that there was no efficiency in information management, process improvement and data governance going on. It drove me crazy. I came from the intelligence industry where we leveraged data in every instance to support the warfighter.

I lived in virtual environments. We saw a huge shift in the way that the intelligence community communicated. So when I came to the commercial side and I saw technology that was probably four or five years ahead of what the government had, I was so geeked out about it.

Wes: Yes! I’m glad you mentioned that. People think our government and, by extension, our military is this super high-tech entity. In reality, we’re using really dated technology built by the lowest bidder. The AWACS aircraft that I worked on, a Boeing 707 airframe, is the flower of 1970s technology!

Angela: Exactly. As for Jadex, even though it was started in 2012, it’s actually in a start-up phase right now. I’m working on our first clients.

I am also trying to communicate that cybersecurity threats are very real. The client that I’m working with now was hacked into by the Russians. That client does not understand why their data would be valuable and compromised because they manufacture and sell consumer goods.

I’ve done some speaking engagements where I talk about the critical sectors and industries in the United States. Many seemingly innocent companies can become a target by a foreign service.

That’s where my passion on cybersecurity has morphed. I see the cyber threat, but there is also that human intelligence collection threat from a foreign adversary.

Wes: You mean actual spies on the ground, here in America?

Angela: I read a recent report that states there are approximately 100,000 agents from 60 to 80 countries working covertly in the United States. Homeland Security has deemed 16 sectors as critical, so if you’re working with, for or in one of those industries, you are a potential target.

As a target, you have an obligation to your country and to your clients to protect their data. What I’m finding on the commercial side is that small- to medium-size businesses are not protecting their data. They have no concept of why they would be a target.

Last spring, for example, the Russians hacked into the U.S. power grid system. They did it through small- to medium-size businesses with very poor data security practices; these businesses were also vendors to the U.S. grid system. That’s why we need to talk about defending these sectors and why data from any size of business is considered important.

We all know there are cybersecurity threats, but there is a human collection threat as well. I have worked with people who are called non-official cover officers (NOC)’s. These officers can be employed by businesses and pretend to work for whatever industry they are in with no ties to the real agency they are working for.

But these people actually collect intelligence that supports the information being collected by hackers at the same time.

I’m not trying to scare people. But if I wanted to hack into someone else’s business and get to their data, I would first target the companies that believe they are safe and need no protection…

Continued in part two. Coming soon.

In part one, Angela Hill has provided some amazing insights. Check back for part two of this interview where Navy veteran and cyber CEO Angela Hill goes into greater detail about the state of U.S. Cyber Security!

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